Saturday, January 4, 2014

The Babbling Brooks of Conrad

Brooks Conrad spent last season in Japan, struggling as a member of the Hanshin Tigers.  While there, he played with another former Brave, Blaine Boyer.  Unlike Boyer, who posted solid numbers, Conrad slashed his way to .175/.319/.281 while hitting no homers in 69 AB and playing sparingly at third.  It was yet another disappointing turn for someone whose career seemed to peak in the summer of 2009.

Conrad was drafted in 2001 by the Houston Astros, but never made it to the majors with them, reaching AAA Round Rock in 2005 and staying there until he became a free agent after the 2007 season.  The A’s gave him a shot the following season and he posted an .820 OPS with the help of a career-best 28 homers.  The impressive season was not without its flaws.  He only batted .243 and struck out 127 times while playing five different positions, but he produced enough to get a look in the majors for just over a week in late July, 2008.  In six games and 19 trips to the plate, Conrad had three hits with one double.

After the season, he signed as a minor league free agent with the Braves.  Atlanta seemed very set in the middle infield with Kelly Johnson and Yunel Escobar as the starters and Martin Prado and Omar Infante behind them.  But KJ went on to have a rough season, losing his starting gig to Prado and eventually forcing the Braves to demote him under the pretense of getting him some at-bats.  The beneficiary was Conrad, promoted on July 3rd.  With Infante hurt and the other backup, Diory Hernandez, being useless with the bat, Conrad was counted on to provide some pop and in his first game, he came through.  With the score tied at 5-5 and both starters Kenshin Kawakami and Ross Detwiler gone, Conrad hit for Boone Logan to face Jesus Colome with two outs and Escobar and Casey Kotchman on.  On a 0-1 pitch, Conrad sent one into the Washington night for a three-run bomb.  The Braves would eventually win 9-8.

Conrad would get regular play, both at second base and as a pinch hitter, for most of the month, but was returned to Gwinnett when Johnson rejoined the Braves right before the end of the month.  Conrad returned when the rosters expanded, but struggled, failing to get a hit in 22 AB’s.  The Braves retained Conrad for a second season and in 2010, Conrad finally won an opening day job.  The middle infield situation in Atlanta remain crowded with Prado and Escobar as the starters and Infante behind them, but Conrad carved out a niche as one of Bobby Cox’s preferred pinch hitters, especially since he was a switch-hitter.  Of the 103 games he appeared in, Conrad only started 24 games with 13 of those starts coming in the season’s final two months.  He was used as a pinch hitter 63 times!  He only hit .224 as a pinch hitter, but seven of his 13 hits went for extra bases.

His (positive) defining moment in Braves lure came on May 20th.  The Reds destroyed Tommy Hanson in the second inning, scoring eight runs to chase him and while the Braves tried to make it a ballgame, by the bottom of the 9th, it was 9-3.  Cox played the game conservatively, double-switching Brian McCann for Jonny Venters and removing Chipper Jones in the top of the ninth for rookie Craig Kimbrel.  They had put up the white flag.  However, four consecutive singles opened the inning against Mike Lincoln, who was pitching his third inning.  The last single came off the bat of Nate McLouth, who didn’t have many hits that season, and it scored a pair of runs.  Nick Masset got the call for the Reds, but he walked David Ross on five pitches to re-load the bases.  Prado hit a grounder that Orlando Cabrera couldn’t field and Escobar scored to make it 9-6.  Dusty Baker went to Arthur Rhodes and the ageless one K’d Jason Heyward for the first out of the inning.  Rhodes was lifted for Francisco Cordero, who went to two All-Star Games in the three seasons before 2010.  However, he had already blown two games during the first month-and-half.

There was a 20% chance the Braves would win the game when Conrad faced Cordero.  But they were already on borrowed time as they entered the ninth with a 0% chance of winning.  With a 2-2 count, Cordero seemed to be in charge.  After all, the previous season, only two people hit a homer against him while seven other times, Cordero got a rally-killing double play.  Not this time, though.  Conrad took Cordero deep.  Way the hell deep.  All the way out of the park for a pinch-hit game-winning walk-off Grand Slam.  It was one of the most unlikely victories of Bobby Cox’s long career.

Conrad continued to play regularly into the summer, getting starts at third to rest Chipper, and hit a second pinch-hit Grand Slam on July 24th to break up a 5-5 tie with the Marlins.  However, Chipper would go down in August and Conrad got more time there.  Defensively, he was overmatched and while he continued to post an OPS over .800, there were concerns his defense would cost the Braves if they got to the playoffs.  When Prado went down toward the end of the season, the Braves eventually switched Infante (who was filling in at second) with Conrad, putting Conrad at his more natural second base.  The Braves would slide into the playoffs as the Wild Card and face the eventual champs, the Giants.  In Game One, a Conrad error led to a potential run-scoring chance for the Giants, but Derek Lowe worked around it.  Game Two was fairly quiet, but in Game Three, the Braves worst fears were realized.  Conrad’s error in the first was worked around (with some help from a caught stealing), but Conrad’s dropped flyball in the second led to a run.  With the score 2-2 in the ninth after Kimbrel and Mike Dunn couldn’t close it, Peter Moylan entered to face Buster Posey.  The last thing anyone in Atlanta wanted to see was a groundball to second, but there it was…and Conrad again couldn’t handle it.  The run scored and the Braves went to an elimination game in the fourth game.

Rather than start Conrad again – and Conrad wasn’t hitting either – the Braves gave Troy Glaus the start at third.  Glaus, who began the year as the starting first baseman, had played two innings at third base all season.  He had famously started a double play in the tenth during Game Two.  Of course, the Braves lost that game and the series and Bobby Cox retired.  Conrad was a convenient goat…four errors, 1-for-11…but he wasn’t supposed to start.  He was successful at what was supposed to be his job and provided a tremendous .250/.324/.487 slash off the bench.

Conrad returned in 2011, but his success was short-lived.  He hit just .223/.325/.388 while starting all of 12 games in the field.  After the season, the Braves non-tendered Conrad, ending their three-year relationship with the utility infielder.  Conrad hooked on with the Brewers for 2012, but didn’t last long before being designated for assignment in mid-June.  The Rays brought him aboard and after 24 games and an OPS under .600, Conrad was banished to the minors for the remainder of the year.  In 105 PA between Milwaukee and Tampa, Conrad posted a .487 OPS.  However, he brutalized AAA pitching and got an opportunity across the Pacific.

This week, Conrad signed with the San Diego Padres in hopes of getting back to the majors.  It's hard not to root for him and not only because Conrad was born in San Diego.  His skill set has never been overwhelming.  He provided pop at second and not much else.  And for one season in Atlanta, he became a bench bat other teams had to prepare for.  And while many Braves fans will recall his Bill Buckner act in the 2010 NLDS, he truly deserved more praise for his production that helped Atlanta reach the playoffs.

No comments:

Post a Comment